As part of our series about the lesser known ferry routes and crossings around the British Isles, below we take a look at the Northern Isles of Scotland, including the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The Orkney Islands lie only 10 km off the Scottish coast and number seventy; only twenty of them are inhabited. Confusingly enough, the largest of the Orkney Islands is called Mainland — it is the tenth largest island in all the British Isles. The Pentland Firth is the strait between Caithness on the Scottish coast and the nearest Orkney island, South Ronaldsay. The Orkney Islands are divided into two groups, the North Isles and the South Isles. The North Isles include a dozen inhabited islands and about fifteen uninhabited ones; the South Isles have ten inhabited islands and a dozen uninhabited. The South Isles are best known for surrounding the Scapa Flow, a wide natural harbor 30-60 metres deep and covering over 300 sq km. Scapa Flow has been used for over a thousand years as a shelter for boats and ships. The Vikings kept fleets there, as did British fleets in World War One and World War Two.

The Shetland Islands lie 80 km beyond the Orkney Islands and number over a hundred, though only sixteen of them are inhabited. The largest island of the grouping is also called Mainland, just as in the Orkney Islands,. Measuring 970 sq km, Mainland is the chief port for the Shetland Islands. It is the fifth largest of all the islands of Great Britain — the others, in order of size, once you exclude the first two, Great Britain and Ireland, are two of the Hebrides, Skye and Lewis & Harris. In the Shetland Islands, a rocky uninhabited outcrop called Out Stack is actually the northernmost point of the British Isles. The Shetland Islands are best known as being the origin for various species of animals also named Shetland: sheep, ponies, sheepdogs and geese.

There are two types of ferries serving the Northern Isles, the islands and those that travel among the islands and those that move people and vehicles between the Scottish mainland and the islands. In the first category of island travel are the Orkney Island Ferries, a joint operation of many ferries consolidated in the 1990s. The second category representing travel out from the coast and back again is represented by two companies, Pentland Ferries and Northlink Ferry and also by a small seasonal private service operating out of the tiny village of John o’ Groats. John o’ Groats is also called Journey’s End to denote its fame as the northernmost settlement on the island of Great Britain. Unfortunately, the actual northernmost inhabited point is Dunnet Head slightly to the west. John o’ Groats, however, does represent one end of the journey that covers the furthest distance you can travel overland on the island of Great Britain, the other end being Land’s End at the western tip of Cornwall. The ferry from John o’ Groats is seasonal only, however, taking passengers to Burwick on the island of South Ronaldsay.

The Pentland Ferries, the quickest way to take your car into the Orkney Islands, has been family-owned since 2001. The trips out past the uninhabited islands of Stroma and Swona lets passengers see packs of seals, schools of porpoise, pods of killer whales and flocks of puffins along the way. Northlink Ferries, which took over service in July of 2012 of several routes from P&O Ferries, Pentland Ferries and the Serco company, takes passengers and vehicles out to the Orkney Islands and beyond to the Shetland Islands.

The Orkney Islands Ferries is the assimilation of many inter-island ferries that began in the early 1990s and that culminated in a fleet-wide name-change in 1995. Service runs out from Mainland to the North Isles, to the island of Shapinsay to the north, to the islands of Wyre, Egilsay and Rousay also to the north, to the islands of Flotta and Hoy to the south, to the southern island of Graemsay and to the islands of Papa Westray and Westray.